One of my readers recently asked if there is anything he could do to prevent the conversations with his wife from always evolving into arguments. If both partners are passionate about their opinions, and determined to prove they are right, finding a solution through debating to a point of agreement might be a bigger challenge than the couple anticipated. What then? What, if anything, should be done if marital discussions about the important issues always end in arguments with no solution being found?
Let us first consider whether marital arguments are something that should be avoided. Many couples insist that they thrive on arguing: heated debate generates passion in the relationship. But is this really the best way for the couple to live? Arguments develop when one or both individuals involved lose their focus and the ability to communicate without emotion clouding their judgment. Arguments commonly include criticism that makes the listener defensive, and likely to retaliate with more criticism or hostility. As arguments progress, those involved try harder to make themselves heard. They become frustrated and angry when they see they are failing to convince the other person. As emotions escalate, those involved in the argument become less capable of communicating effectively: negative emotions cripple the ability to listen and speak.
If the couple is serious about finding solutions to their problems, then arguing is the wrong direction to take. During an argument, the conversation aims at one person’s opinion dominating, instead of blending the couple’s wisdom and finding what is best for the marriage. The criticism component of a typical argument is destructive - people say hurtful things that leave the kind of damage that taints a relationship long after the heat of the battle has past. An argument is not the most effective way for a couple to resolve issues - it may allow one or both partners to vent and relieve some tension, but there will usually be a price to pay for this emotional indulgence. If you want more than just a little tension relief from your passionate discussions, banish the arguments from your home.
But how do we stop arguing when it feels so natural for us?
In non-traditional marriages, it falls on the more emotionally mature partner to take the lead. In a traditional marriage the husband, as head of his home and leader in his marriage, bears the responsibility to pull the plug before a conversation degrades to where it is damaging to the marriage. (The wife can also help prevent an argument - after all, it takes two to tangle - but she lacks the authority her husband has at times like this.) When the husband recognizes that emotion is causing the conversation to deviate from the goal of finding a solution that is best for the marriage, he needs to call a halt to the conversation. It is essential to not assign blame at this time. The husband will achieve nothing positive by saying things like “you are too emotional to discuss this so we will continue later,” or “you are confusing the issue so I refuse to discuss this further”. As leader, he needs to help them both refocus, and that is best achieved with a neutral argument-terminator like “we will put this discussion on ice for 30 minutes”. The words the husband uses to shut down the argument will play a big role in how quickly peace returns to the home.
Thirty minutes is usually the minimum time needed for both partners to calm down, and gather their thoughts so they can return to the discussion with clear heads. Sometimes a longer break is better, but the matter should not be left unresolved for an indefinite period. Set a time limit for the cool-off period. Take enough time to think about the ideas you want to share that will benefit the marriage - steer clear of ideas and solutions that don’t enrich the marriage. Committing your ideas to paper before returning to the discussion is a good way to keep the discussion focused on the goal.
But what if the wife disregards her husband’s decision to draw a close to the argument? What if she forges ahead and continues to try to make her point after he has called for a cool-off period? In this case, the husband should respond as he would to any other act of disrespect from his wife. By insisting on fueling the argument after her husband has called a time-out on the discussion, she is blatantly stating that she does not respect his leadership decision, and has chosen to disobey him. If he usually punishes his wife for this kind of behavior, the husband should do so in this case. A spanking may light a fire in his argumentative wife’s bottom, but it will go a long way to putting out the wild fire of an unnecessary and destructive argument. And when the fire in the wife’s spanked rear has died down, the couple can spend some time apart gathering their thoughts before sitting down to try to solve the problem together.